Suicidal youngsters often seem no different from their peers but are much more likely to suffer health problems, such as sleeplessness or depression, and to smoke or take mind-altering drugs, according to a new report.
The research, commissioned by the Fondation de France, was carried out in 10 hospitals and based on interviews with young people admitted after attempting suicide. The researchers also interviewed the doctors and the youngsters' parents.
Follow-up sessions with some respondents were conducted for up to a year afterwards, allowing researchers to build up profiles of those at risk.
Suicide is the second most common cause of death among 15 to 25-year-olds in France. About 800 in the age group kill themselves annually, and between 40,000 and 60,000 make attempts serious enough for hospitalisation. In 1999, 30 children under 14 committed suicide.
In the report, Marie Choquet of Inserm, the health and medical research institute, and Virginie Granboulan of Creteil district hospital found that in many respects the would-be suicides were comparable to other young people.
Those in their teens generally had similar hobbies to their classmates, such as sport, reading or artistic activities. Most also went out with friends frequently, and only 3 per cent said they had no friends.
They were socially diverse. But they had more educational problems, tended to dislike school, have family troubles or have experienced a romantic break-up or physical attack.
The authors were particularly struck by the "variety of associated disorders". A third of the youngsters reported a wide range of health problems, more than half suffered sleeplessness, four-fifths were clinically depressed, three-fifths smoked daily and a third regularly took mind-altering drugs.
Running away was another danger signal. However, "they are not characterised by delinquent behaviour such as theft, extortion, fights", said the report. Their disorders were "a socially acceptable expression of suffering".
Les jeunes suicidants ... l'hopital, by Marie Choquet and Virginie Granboulan, Editions EDK, 18 euros.
SEE TEENAGE SUICIDE, the issue in Friday magazine